The previous post talked about the harsh contracts imposed on music hall performers by managers and owners of the halls. This hit those lower down the bill particularly hard as their pay wasn’t great and they had previously relied on playing more than one hall a night to make a living. The Variety Artistes Federation was formed in February 1906 and was a union of music hall entertainers created to represent them in negotiations with owners and managers. There was a long running dispute over matinée performances which were inserted into the programme with payment for one matinée regarded as covering five matinees if the manager chose. This was true for performers, musicians and stagehands. The Trade Disputes Act later in the same year meant that the right to strike was enshrined in law in the event of a trade dispute with an employer.
In 1907 there was a strike of performers, musicians and stagehands bringing together the members of three unions. Many London music halls were affected with picket lines, including well-known stars, dissuading the public from entering. Managers reduced prices and put on new and untried acts which played to small audiences who often left part way through. The Daily News reports that the new programme at the Canterbury Music Hall, Lambeth, was abandoned as the trainers couldn’t get a troupe of performing elephants to leave the stage. At other halls such as the Oxford the manager appeared on the stage to explain the situation and for the most part the audience were given their admission money back.
Some encouragement was given to popular artistes to break the strike with Marie Dainton, actress and mimic, being offered the carrot of a future engagement at the Holborn Empire and a motor-cab to make her journey easier. She replied ‘I can only be led by the Variety Artistes Federation.’ This performer is often credited with being a leading figure in the strike but in a letter to the London Daily News she writes ‘ I do not wish to be exploited as taking a prominent part in the strike—as statements have been made in one or two papers that make it appear as though I was taking special steps in the matter.‘ A week later the Daily News received another letter from Marie Dainton saying that although she would not accept engagements at the affected halls she was resigning from the Federation. She concludes ‘I have the greatest respect for the artistes of the music hall profession, but I refuse to be identified with the scene-shifters or stage employees.’
Some of the higher earning stars did not support the strike but Marie Lloyd was a enthusiastic spokesperson stating that ‘We can dictate our own terms. We are not fighting for ourselves, but for the poorer members of the profession, earning thirty shillings to three pounds a week. For this they have to do double turns, and now matinées have been added as well. These poor things have been compelled to submit to unfair terms of employment, and I mean to back up the Federation in whatever steps are taken.’ She was a regular on the picket line and when the unfortunate Belle Elmore crossed the line to perform Marie urged her companions not to stop her, saying she was such a bad performer she would empty the hall anyway.
Some performers took advantage of the situation by appearing in the affected halls but it didn’t always turn out well for them. Evelyn Taylor was reported as appearing at eight of the picketed halls each night but found she was unable to find a cab to take her between halls. The drivers refused the job. The London Tram, Bus and Motor Workers Union resolved to support the strike in any way possible. The official artistes association in America, the White Rats, cabled that they were with the strikers ‘heart and soul’ and would do everything possible to help the cause. Financial support came from individuals and provincial branches of the Alliance and from a levy on the salaries of working members of the Alliance. There was a surge of performers calling to be enrolled as members of the Federation with two hundred names being taken before two o’clock on one day. Most of these had refused engagements in the affected halls. The Federation increased it’s membership to around five thousand.
It came to be known as the music hall war and we’ll continue next time.